A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“E.S.P.” is the lead-off track on Miles Davis’ groundbreaking album by the same name. The time takes off like a rocket, and it’s hard for us to imagine the effect this must have had on the ears of young jazz listeners of the time. Several musicians, who were teens at the time, have described their initial reaction as being something like “Wow! What is that???!!!” Many well-trained jazz pianists simply had no idea what Davis and his group were doing, but they were very interested in finding out.

The melody is simple enough; slow(ish) notes played legato. The 4th intervals disguise the key a little but Shorter’s natural melodic sense keeps it hummable. It’s the tempo that really gets us, though! “E.S.P.” is meant to be played fast! I once heard Wayne’s group play it in concert, extremely fast, and the whole arrangement lasted only about 2 minutes. I wanted more!!!

Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)

Miles Davis: E.S.P.

Peter Erskine

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
In composing the chord progression to “E.S.P.,” Shorter uses a technique that I would call “motivic harmonies.” While we usually think of “motifs” as short melodic phrases that can be used as the building blocks of a melody, here, Shorter does the same thing with his chords.

Here’s what I mean:

When I was first learning “E.S.P.,” I thought the tune was in the key of E. Sounds logical, right? After all, it begins and ends with E7 and it’s not unusual in jazz and blues music for the tonic to be a dominant 7th chord, right? But after a few years (yes, years!), I realized that the initial E7 really functions as a lower neighbor to FMaj7 chord in the second measure. The piece is in F, but begins a half-step lower, in a kind of “harmonic sidestepping.” (I may have just coined a new term here: “Harmonic Sidestepping.” You heard it here first, folks!!!) So when we improvise on the tune, we can view the E7 and going to the FMaj7, and thinking about it like this will automatically give your improvised line a direction that it otherwise may not have. It’s also a longer phrase, which takes into account how the chords are related, just like you would while soloing over a standard ii/V/I, for example.

These two chords are also a half-step apart, which forms the “harmonic motif” I alluded to earlier. (Is that another new term? “Harmonic motif”???)

So, after setting up this half-step movement between chords, Shorter continues it in measures 5-8, moving down by half-steps back to E7 and then even lower to EbMaj7. The next phrase, in measures 9-12, is also all in half steps with the chords except for the whole step from FMaj7 to EbMaj7 in m. 12.

After this, Wayne must have seen the need to “ground” the song, so he abandons the “floating harmony” and puts in a very traditional series of ii/V’s that could have been written back in the 1920s. And what key would you guess they are in? F major! This is confirmation that the opening E7 chord was in fact a lower neighbor the FMaj7 in m. 2, which indeed functions as a tonic, or “home key” for the piece as a whole.

Seeing how the harmonies relate to one another like this will help you improvise over the piece better, since you’ll know how it all fits together and where you are in the form. “E.S.P.” is an exciting piece to play, once you put in enough practice time to become comfortable with it.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
E.S.P. (album): Wikipedia

E.S.P.: Journey Through The Real Book #112

Jazz piano Tip #27: E.S.P.

Here's a way to practice difficult chord progressions (It's inspired by how Charlie Parker practiced!)

Interaction, Improvisation, And Interplay In Jazz
A book by Robert Hodson that contains a discussion of the tune E.S.P.

Todd Coolman’s liner notes to the Miles Davis 1965-1968 recordings
An excellent overview of the great 1960s Miles Davis Quintet and their recordings

How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively

Jazz Piano Video Course
This extensive, well-sequenced video course will get you playing jazz standards with a sense of flow and fluency.

Jazz Piano Lessons via Skype
Personal guidance from an expert, caring teacher. Beginning through Advanced.

Take a Free Jazz Piano Lesson

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